Saturday, April 10, 2010

Flashpackin' the USSR!

Railed in all the way from Minsk, Belorussky
didn't get to bed last night.
All the way the paperbag was on my knees.
Man, I had a dreadful ride.
Flashpackin' the USSR
You don't know how lucky you are, boy...

Once in Moscow I hit red square in need to get some money since my Belarussian roubles (also referred to as "rabbits" by the Russian) are worthless here. I found an ATM at the GUM which is where Moscow's nouveau riche spend their petroroubles. As opposed to Minsk there is no luxury brand that cannot be found.

The first evening I witnessed Swan Lake at the Bolshoi, a ticket I bought on the internet more than a month in advance and that cost me an arm and a leg. It was worth it. The acoustics and the venue are amazing and the ballet is just spectacular. Have a listen here for some impressions and to hear the audience shout their "bravos".

I spent 5 days/4 nights in the capital and could have easily stayed some more weeks to explore the place. And while the Kremlin, Red Square and all are great sites not to be missed I went to see some rather odd attractions as well:

The History of the Gulag Museum presents the dark history of Stalin's days where people were detained for little or no reason. A 17 year old boy was sentenced to 7 years of correctional labour camp for a teenage prank of stealing a bottle of vodka. Camps were all over the country and had no name but only numbers. Many of these camps were placed in the north where Stalin had the mental idea to build a railroad above the arctic circle. Prisoners "lived" on 300 g of bread a day while being forced to work 8 hours on the railtracks. The guards were awarded extra homeleave if they shot an escapee. When someone asked to step out to take a leak from the working area and walked into the woods a guard shot the "escapee" for an extra day at home. After work before returning to the baracks the prisoners were strip searched by the guards to make sure they did not steal anything (there was nothing to be stolen obviously). It was -40 degrees outside. 
The project was never finished. It proved to be impossible to build tracks on the permafrost ground of the north. What was built during winter was washed away when the snow melted and all work was lost. Shortly after Stalin's death the camps were closed, although some continued operation under a different name operated by the KGB.
The Museum has artwork of released prisoners on display as well as items from the camps and a model of the cells. It's as depressing and shocking as it is interesting. English and history student Olga from MoscowMania works part time at the Museum can give you lots of additional information.

A place that was not opened until 2005 to the public is a bunker 18 flights of stairs down from the ground and protected by a fake building of 6 meters of reinforced concrete which is now the cold war museum. After both sides of the iron curtain started to build up massive stacks of nuclear weapons, the Russians began to build underground places from where the control could be kept alive for up to 90 days if a strike would hit the city. The fake building would have windows where light was turned on and off to make it look inhabited, while underground a whole different thing was going on. Even people working there were not aware of what was going on beyond their checkpoint. Access was through the building and - at night when the Moscow Metro stopped operating - the bunker had its own secret metro station. It's a whole city under the city. The visit itself is admittedly a bit touristy but nevertheless interesting. Once you stepped down the 18 flights of stairs you get to see a movie about the history of the cold war. From a Russian point of view. You also get to see the communication sites, can use some old phone switchboards, dress up in Soviet Uniforms, hold and AK-47 and have a shot. Of vodka.

The bunker close to Taganskaya Metro station is the only one known and open to the public, visits are only possible by appointment, so call ahead, they do have one English speaking guide. There are obviously more of these facilities, probably still in operation...

Quiz time:
Since I have a strange obsession with embalmed socialist leaders I had to go to see Lenin in his Mausoleum on Red Square. There are four socialist leaders that can be visited (it used to be five, but poor Stalin is now burried six feet under in a simple grave next to the Kremlin's walls. What a loser. Big FAIL here). Two of them I will manage to see on this trip. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (who looks quite pale by the way) is number one and Mao will be number two once I get into Beijing. The first person to name the remaining two will receive a postcard of the chairman. The two I am missing are a bit more difficult to achieve. At number three you are not allowed to wear shorts. Number four requires you to wear a suit and pretend to cry, once you managed to enter the country which is a challenge by itself. Enough said.

I will leave the capital of Tatarstan where I spent the last two days tonight and head to Yekaterinburg to cross the border between Europe and Asia.

...flashpackin' the USSR
Hey, you don't know how lucky you are boy...

I was lucky enough to run into Romain, who also prays in the church of Canon and shares my passion for photography, so we went out at night with our tripods and kept on changing lenses. 

moscow by night:

She got Red Square, say what you will I don't care, I couldn't resist it!
Skirts are short and heels are high and I wonder how the moscovitas manage to step over the cobblestones...

Lenin Mausoleum

more red square

my comrades and me on red square:


Mar said...

Aha, that´s why you always wanted to go to visit Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi...
The other one must be Kim Il Sung, to be seen somewhere in Korea, don´t know the city though.

Quiero mis postales!! Y mis cucharitas! ;-)

Axelman said...

That's right, the chairman's postcard is all yours! Kim Il-sung is resting in Pyonyang btw.